Since the dawn of the modern mobile payments era, Starbucks has positioned itself as the poster child for how the technology can resonate with customers. And it's not about to rest on its laurels.
The coffee chain may have had it easy in selling a product that its patrons buy at least once a day, but Starbucks has built on this loyalty to create the "gold standard" for mobile engagement that most merchants struggle to build for their own brands, said Richard Oglesby, senior analyst at Double Diamond Payments Research.
In recent years, Starbucks has explored a way to export its tech savvy to other businesses, but this has never materialized in anything as straightforward as white-labeling its app. The company boasts that its mobile payment success — it accepts more than one in five U.S. in-store payments through its app — is built on the strength of its loyalty and gift card programs.
"They are all trying to build a digital relationship with consumers that occurs when they walk into the physical stores," Oglesby said.
Since Starbucks isn't trying to sell technology, it has a less tangible goal for its mobile app. In addition to encouraging loyalty, the app allows patrons to reload Starbucks gift cards without talking to a barista. This results in shorter lines, and the advances Starbucks is developing today — mobile ordering and delivery — are different means to the same end.
And its competitors are watching closely.
Dunkin' Donuts moved to add mobile ordering late in the year. San Francisco-based Cardfree, a company founded by the designers of the original Starbucks Card app, is providing the platform for Dunkin' Donuts' app.
Starbucks has made it clear it wants to advance its mobile payment and loyalty program, but it isn't about to force consumers to use it. For example, early in 2015 Starbucks decided to support Apple Pay in its stores.
It is likely that Starbucks' mobile payment program will get a surge of use in early 2016, following the holiday gift-giving season. The plastic Starbucks card is a hugely popular gift during the holidays, and the Starbucks app is essentially a digital way to use those card accounts. In 2013, one in eight Americans received a Starbucks gift card as a holiday gift, according to Starbucks. In 2014, it was one in seven.